E-Publishing — A Revolution?

 

Got your Kindle/Nook/iPad? Happy?

I love gadgets. I am usually the first to try out a new electronic thingy. I bought a cell phone when they were still as large as a brick; my first PC was a DOS-based IBM XT computer with a floppy disk slot, a 10 MB hard disk drive and 56 KB of memory. Remember DIR [drive:][path][filename] [/P] [/W] [/A[[:]attributes]] [/O[[:]sortorder]] [/S] [/B] [/L] [/V]? I do. I built my first website when it wasn’t fashionable yet to promote one’s personal brand digitally (and not on a blogging-platform, mind you, where you copy and paste and that’s all there’s to it, but by painstakingly hand-coding.)

But using an e-reader? Hmpff.

I like the printed book too much. I like the smell of books. I like dedications in books, authors’ signatures and the memory where I bought the book or who gave it to me. I like to feel the weight of the book, see exactly how much more there is to go before I’m done, before I snap it shut to give it away; or before I write my name in it and put it on my shelf to re-read, where it awaits its turn next to the colorful spines of many other books. I like hardcover books that have their own sewn-in book mark. I like cheap paperbacks with stains, like the one from the memorable flight to Europe, when my daughter spilled Bloody Mary mix all over my bag. The book still smells like a cocktail shaker. Memories like that. And no e-reader can give me that.

But regardless of my nostalgic digging into old times, I am aware, and at awe, that the e-book revolution has arrived! This might be good news for print media in general. Fascinating.

U.S. e-book sales grew from $3 million in 2005 to $88.7 million in the second quarter of 2010. According to the International Digital Publishing Forum, by the end of the third quarter, it had reached $119.7 million. It’s a phenomenon that redefines the nature of reading itself. We are close to the tipping point of forever changing the publishing industry.

New York Women in Communications recently hosted a fascinating panel that gave a glimpse into what publishing will have in store for us. The panelists included Ray Pearce, vice-president, Circulation & Reader Applications at The New York Times; Lauren Indvik, assistant editor at Mashable.com; Matt DeVirgiliis, e-book manager, Digital Rights & Alliances at McGraw Hill Digital; and Sujata Gosalia, associate partner at Oliver Wyman. The moderator was Tim Carmody, a writer at Snarkmarket.com and the founder of Bookfuturism.com.

Now that the iPad and various simpler e-readers have become the must-have gadgets for the avid reader, Google launched its own cross-platform initiative “Google Editions” or simply Goggle eBooks — a hub for purchasing and accessing more than 3 million e-books on various platforms (computer, mobile, e-reader and tablet), giving consumers a choice where, on what platform they read and at what expense. Their initiative is shaping up to be, according to MediaBeat, “the world’s largest library of titles.”

With Google introducing the new purchasing model, there is no more device-restricted downloading; readers freely share content and read it on any device they own in the “cloud,” or pay for downloads in one centralized marketplace, thus taking control away from the e-reader manufacturers that are still vying to curb the distribution of free content.

“For newspapers, Google is ‘very interesting’,” admits Ray. Still, he says, “we, at the newspaper, decide what we want to keep control of, namely our customer care. We want you as a New York Times reader; we want to know who you are. We want to determine a consistent pricing model, no matter the device you read the newspaper on. We need to structure the payment that meets our needs.” And newspaper content online, after the reader exceeds a pre-set amount of downloads will soon disappear behind a pay wall.

Google’s arrival at the e-publishing forefront, “shows how important search is to finding content,” adds Sujata. “They’re a lot of players to influence what users see first and respond to. Now, the end consumer owns the content and thus takes the power away from the manufacturers of the devices.”

But in the new world of publishing and sharing, who has the rights to the content? “We need to find the happy middle,” says Matt. “Keep your customers and your clients in mind and strike a balance; be also careful to safeguard the content for the author.” Adds Ray: “Publishers start to bundle in packages to meet the customers’ needs, like “buy once — access anywhere” wherever it fits me at the time. Most publishers are on that track.”

The publishing industry is met with a growing consumer demand that content ought to be customized to a specific platform. Reading is not a one-size-fits-all experience any longer; depending on the device, readers expect the content, the level of interaction and the ease of accessibility to change across the various platforms.

The average consumer has now changed dramatically: “When the first e-readers hit the market, about 75% of the average readers were young and female,” says Lauren. “The e-publishing market has grown to a billion readers [worldwide, who access content electronically]. Now, the split is even, with shiny devices preferred by men.” But interestingly, readers who use their iPad to access newspapers use these devices almost as they would use their print newspapers: they tend to use their gadgets early in the morning, in the evening and on weekends. According to Ray, during the day, mobile devices and computers are used more frequently to access The New York Times. “E-readers are in between mobile and computers. And size matters: The e-reader wants to conquer your bag; the mobile wants to conquer your pocket and the iPad wants to sit on your coffee table.”

What’s next in e-publishing? “Screen sizes!” predicts Matt. “TVs will use the same apps that are on your mobile. Everything that’s electronic will soon be talking to each other.” “The line of what is publishing, media and technology will blur and interact,” believes Sujata. “For consumer technology and content creators, this is scary but exciting!”

Book authors will rethink their works to fit a certain digital platform. “The criteria for how to judge a ‘good’ novel will change to ‘is it interactive?’” adds Lauren. “Not only how the book is written but how engaging it is. Authors will rethink what they can do with content to reach more consumers.”

Traditional publishers will have to assess how they produce their content and what kind of interactivity and freedom they want to give the reader. “We still need to understand the brand process and how it is accessed, where and by whom,” says Sujata. “How do we rethink the workflow of content creation, layout and how it looks on the various screens and screen sizes?”

In the end, however, all agreed that there will always be a place for printed books, magazines and newspapers in the world. “Overnight, the idea that you cannot charge for digital content evaporated when it became clear that there is no ad revenue online,” concludes Ray. “Customers now expect to pay for content on their gadgets. No more free for all.”

 

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Tekla Szymanski

Tekla is a New-York based independent content strategist and front-end web developer, a multilingual journalist, writer and editor (both offline and online).

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